Kaimuki Eats: Café TajMahal

Tandoor clay oven

Yesterday our gang decided to have lunch at Café TajMahal. A relatively new Indian cuisine restaurant located on the Ewa end of Waialae avenue in Kaimuki. Specifically, tucked away in the back corner of a small strip mall on the corner of Waialae and St. Louis Drive…

Just look for Sushi Man on the front corner, and Café TajMahal is way over on the Mauka end of the building…

There’s limited parking in front, which if is full, you can also park across the street in a pay lot on the corner next to City Mill.

The small dining room is rather conservative…

…with just enough of a decor and artwork treatment to suggest you’re in an Indian Restaurant, without being kitschy.

They also had some pop Indian music playing softly in the dining room, which helped to round out the experience.

If it isn’t your visual or hearing senses that will convince you’re about to partake in Indian Cuisine here, your sense of SMELL will remind you so. Oh, that fragrant smell of exotic herbs and spices that immediately greet you as soon as you enter. Love it!

When we arrived around 11:30am, we were the only party there, yet by the time we departed, the establishment was about 50% capacity, so that’s a good sign.

We ended up each ordering a dish of individual choice, then sharing it family style, which, like Chinese restaurants, I believe is the best way to dine here at Café TajMahal.

First landing on the table was the Lamb Samosa appetizer…

Lamb Samosa – Spiced Lamb in a crisp pastry cone, $7.25

The Lamb Samosa is served with two types of sauces…

Tamarind and Yogurt Mint Sauce for the Lamb Samosa

Let’s cut in open and take a look…

Like the rest of the dishes that arrived on the table, this was essentially a “party on a plate” of flavors, like your tongue alone was suddenty transported to Saturday night at Studio 54. The deep-fried pastry was slightly glutenous, with a delicately-crisp outer shell. The diced pieces of lamb is mixed with a complex mixture of vegetables, herbs and exotic spices I won’t even begin to figure out, nor did we bother asking, as we were too busy enjoying this most EXCELLENT appetizer. This actually turned out to be my favorite dish of the day. Especially delicious with it was the brown colored Tamarind sauce, which tastes like a chutney, albeit much spicier, with a slight hint of curry in it. The Lamb Samosa from here is highly recommended!

Three of the main courses we ordered came with a side salad, so the owner kindly dished them together so we could also enjoy that family style…

Tossed Salad with Yogurt Cucumber Dressing

The dressing for this salad was a yogurt cucumber sauce similar to Greek Tzatziki, except with a few more complex spices added to it, yet still mild.

Simply delicious and also refreshing, providing a cooling contrast to the hotter, spicier main entrees.

For starch, we got a plate of Yellow Rice…

Yellow Rice – Basmatti rice cooked with ghee, turmeric, mustard seeds and herbs, $5.25

And several entrees ordered included the one and only Naan bread…

Naan – White flour leavened bread baked on the clay wall of a Tandoor oven with butter or without, $2.99 (or included with entrees where specified)

As you may have noticed in the very first photo, that was a Tandoor clay-walled coal-burning oven, which is a prerequisite for any legitimate Indian restaurant…

Every order of Naan is made to order, including these two Garlic Naan that were just added to the Tandoor to bake…

Notice how the soft leavened Naan bread dough clings vertically to the scorching hot, pourous clay wall of the tandoor, and it almost instantly begins to bubble up and cook through. It cooks really fast thanks to the super high heat of the Tandoor’s burning coals at the bottom. I’d like to install a Tandoor like this in my home kitchen!

I’m in no way a seasoned patron of Indian eateries, but must say, this is some darned excellent Naan, at least from my amateur palate’s perspective.

It has a distinctive leavened, nicely salted, lightly buttery character to it, along with a light crispness to the pock-marked scorched crust, and a and chewy, yet tender, “airy” bite to it. This also makes it great to soak up some of the spicey sauces accompanying the entrees. Yum.

The Tandoor oven isn’t just used to cook Naan, but also their Tandoori Chicken, another dish we ordered…

Tandoori Chicken (half order) – Chicken whole leg marinated in yogurt, herbs, spices, Lemon juice & grilled in tandoor oven, $13.99

Let’s cut a piece and check it out…

Just look at that neon orange spice coating it. You know that’s gotta’ be packed with flavors, and it is. Again, very complex, yet overall another “party on a plate”, or “party on a bone” if you will. My only complaint would be that it was a bit on the dry side for my preference, and could have stood about 5 minutes less cooking to retain more of its natural juices.

Another dish cooked in the Tandoor oven is the Chicken Tikka Dopiazza (sizzling)…

Chicken Tikka Dopiazza (sizzling) – Cubed white chicken marinated in yogurt, chef’s special spices, baked on clay oven and cooked with onion, green bell peppers and tomato, $16.99

Then there’s the Chicken Tikka, non-sizzling platter version…

Chicken Tikka – Boneless white chicken marinated in yogurt, herbs, spices and baebecued on skewers in clay oven.

Let’s cut it and see how it looks…

The chunks of chicken are huge, with, again, a complex marinade that’s dfficult to pinpoint exactly which spices are used, yet it somehow ties in well. This chicken was also a bit overcooked in my opinion (I prefer my chicken medium-well, not well done), although there’s probably no way around that in the legal dynamics of the food service industry. No biggie, as I ended up dipping it in the yogurt sauce/dressing accompanying the salad, and it was ono laddat (like that)!

Speaking of moisture, no question Lamb Saag’s got it…

Lamb Saag (House Specialty) – Lamb cubes and creamy spinach cooked with onion, garlic, ginger and spices

Yeah, I know, that looks like Squid Luau, but no, this is exactly as described in the caption above. What would be interesting is if this dish were prepared with the same ingredients, except change out the spinach for Luau leaves. Hah? Hah? How you figgah? Would work o’ what? I ‘tink would. What you ‘tink? It would also be interesting to see how it would taste (how’s that for an oximoron) with coconut milk added to it.

Anyway, as is, this dish is another winnah, with the only shortcoming being that I expected it to be a bit more spicy, as, as is, it’s quite mild. Which I suppose is how the chef wants it to be so you can savor the flavor of the lamb, which in there are big chunks of it…

The distinctive, pronounced flavor of the lamb complimented the mildly-spiced and creamy spinach quite nicely, made even better when eaten along with some of the Naan and Chapatti bread for dippin’…

Chapatti – Two pieces of flat whole wheat bread, $2.50

Adding more spicy sauce to the spread, we also got the Vegetable Masala…

Mix Vegetable Masala (Chef’s Specialty) – Mixed vegetables cooked with tomato, onion, ginger, garic & spices, $10.50

I must admit, after acclimating to the complex array of Indian spices and herbs in each dish here, everything began tasting homogeneous, making it more and more difficult to discern any one particular flavor, save for the Lamb and the Naan.

Service was prompt and friendly, with owner/waiter Kabir Chowdhury quickly taking our orders, answering questions, refilling water glasses and the food arriving in a timely, orderly, well-presented manner. He was also so kind to let me take photos of the Tandoor oven, so big mahalo for that. That buggah’ is HOT!

Mr. Chowdhury was also kind enough to allow us to order from the more extensive dinner menu, versus their much more limited lunch menu. Nice.

Café TajMahal used to have ties with the popular Cafe Maharani cuisine of India restaurant on King street in Moili’ili, but Mr. Chowdhury said they’re no longer affiliated.

Wrapping it up, favorite dishes for me on this particular visit were the Lamb Saag, Lamb Samosa (along with those wonderful sauces) and of course, the Naan, and the meal overall from start to finish was a thumbs-up.

If you’re looking for a new place to get your cuisine of India fix in Honolulu, give Café TajMahal in Kaimuki a try. Recommended.

Café TajMahal
3036 Waialae ave. #B4 (near Midas and City Mill, corner of St. Louis Drive)
Honolulu, Hawaii 96816
Tel. 732-6496
www.CafeTajMahal.com <—see menu there)

The Tasty Island rating:

(3) Very Good. Considerable of another visit or purchase. (Supah’ Ono!)

Related links:
Café TajMahal worthy – Honolulu Star Bulletin review
Café TajMahal – Yelp user reviews


7 thoughts on “Kaimuki Eats: Café TajMahal

  1. Those are some mouth-watering photos. I’ve never actually seen a tandoori oven so I appreciated that you were able to get a shot.

    I love naan and could eat it all day long! I agree that it does an amazing job sopping up all the flavors from other dishes.

  2. I never had it in Honolulu but when visiting San Francisco I had Golden Gate Indian Cuisine and Pizza at 4038 Judah St. Chicken Indian Pizza had curry sauce and tandoori chicken tomatoes onion and spinach. Samosa with lamb is like your at 3.25 ea.

    They also have allu naan stuffed with coconut and dried fruits. and garlic naan , poori and chappati. They use tandoori oven for breads and chicken and lamb dishes.

    Now I will try this one you went to.

  3. Pomai, it hard to find an all Indian restaurants any where. This one is also Indian and Pakistani but food is still very good. The one Amy went to is also Indian-Pakistani .

  4. Most Indian Pakistani restaurants do not have Indian decor due to their Muslim culture to Hindo culture. Been to all Indian restaurant in southern Calif. they have more fancy foods and decors.

  5. Michael and Erica, I’m wondering how much different pure Pakistani cuisine is compared to that from India. I’m curious whether the owners of an Indian restaurant would take offense to having their food or cultural icons correlated to Pakistan due to tension between the two countries.

    Jalna, thanks!

    Amy, compared to what I hear is available in many mainland states, the Indian restaurant scene on Oahu is relatively minimal in comparison to other ethnic specialty restaurants here (especially Japanese and Chinese). In fact, looking at Oahu’s current yellow pages (2009), it lists just FIVE Indian restaurants: Bombay Indian Restaurant (Ala Moana Blvd.), Cafe TajMahal (Waialae ave.), India House (King st.), Maharani (King st.) and Zaffron Restaurant (King st.).

    Jenny, I heard Whole Foods sells Naan. I imagine you’d have to put it in the toaster oven to heat it up. The made-to-order Naan we enjoyed at TajMahal was so HOT, we had to wait a minute or so before even being able to tear into it. I kid you not. So good.

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